“Anni Albers is very much a designer’s artist,” says Priyesh Mistry, one of the curators of the Tate Modern’s vast 2019 retrospective of her work. She’s also, he’s quick to add, “an artist’s artist,” and a woman reluctant to label herself as anything at all: “She was a teacher, an artist, a designer, an architect… and she wouldn’t separate those. She just didn’t have those boundaries.”
Designers working today are used to applying their talents across numerous touchpoints, but a century ago Albers stood in a class of her own. Indeed, much of why Albers is so revered by the design community is down to her multifariousness—in approach, theme, medium, outlook, and outcome.
Another reason Albers’ work appeals to designers is the simple fact that designers just can’t resist a grid, especially a Modernist one. There’s something magical about Albers’ grids, however. They’re imperfect; they work within the strict constraints of a loom—and then disregard them.
Across her textiles, wall hangings, studies, gouache paintings, and jewelry pieces, stringent geometries are offset by a sense of spontaneity and movement. Lines and shapes feel dynamic rather than fixed. The artist’s hand is always present (she worked only with the handloom), and the strange symbols and mind-scrambling patterns feel somehow alive in their fixed woven horizontals and verticals. Decades before postmodern graphic designers thought to question the grid and its association with rationality and order, Albers was quietly and intentionally breaking the hard-wired structures that defined her medium.
“Weaving naturally lends itself to structure,” Mistry points out, “and that structured way of using the grid was inherent in pushing the Modernist projects, and experimenting within those limitations. In [Albers’] early weavings, she doesn’t use every line; it’s not really a ‘pattern.’ She’s using the constraints of what you can achieve with the grid but defying expectations within that.”
The Tate show, which opened last autumn ahead of this year’s Bauhaus centenary, has been a long time coming. While Albers is getting her due now, it’s hard to think of many of her female peers for whom you can say the same—an even more deflating fact when you consider that, according to design critic Jonathan Glancey, more women than men applied to the school when it opened in 1919. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, with an irony apparently very much lost on him, insisted that there would be “no difference between the beautiful and the strong sex” in the Bauhaus. (He also believed that “women thought in ‘two dimensions,’ while men could grapple with three,” according to Glancey.)
In Albers’ textiles, stringent geometries are offset by a sense of spontaneity and movement.
According to Mistry, Albers had initially wanted to paint, and considered weaving “sissy,” despite the considerable physical challenges of working with a loom. Nevertheless, women at the Bauhaus were encouraged to enter into the weaving workshop, so Albers opted to “paint” in textiles. “For her, [weaving] wasn’t necessarily utilitarian,” says Mistry. “It acted like a painting; she was pushing it as a fine art form, as well as intertwining it into her design practice and working with architects to look at textiles’ function within architectural spaces.”
Albers’ skills in weaving were honed out of necessity, not choice. With few exceptions, women weren’t allowed to take painting, carving, stained glass, or architecture classes; instead they were relegated to the loom. “Obviously we’re looking back from a contemporary viewpoint, but it was a very different time then,” says Mistry. “As much as we assume the Bauhaus was very progressive and promoted equality, it wasn’t as progressive or as radical as we’d thought, though maybe it was for the time.”
Today, there’s still undoubtedly a certain, quiet stigma attached to mediums we see as “feminine”—generally those involving fabric, textiles, and to an extent, “craft” pursuits such as ceramics. Albers proved that such mediums were as much fine art and skillful design as, say, abstract painting or typography. “Something she brought to the fore is that although textiles are ubiquitous, they could also be a valid art form in the 20th century.”
That approach is evident throughout her career-spanning Tate display, from the pieces made during her Bauhaus period—such as Wallhanging (1924) and Black White Yellow (1926)—to works like With Verticals (1946), created when she was making and teaching at Black Mountain College in the U.S., where she had moved after the 1933 closure of the Bauhaus closed in 1933. Her later commissioned works demonstrate just how far she had taken weaving into the realm of expressive, important, political art. Six Prayers (1966-67), for example, was commissioned by the Jewish Museum in New York to commemorate the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. Meanwhile, the piece TR II (1970) and Red Meander I (1969-70) are exemplary of her use of textile as a medium for bold, forward-thinking abstractions.
Indeed, it’s that contrast between the linear rigidity of the grid and the fluidity inherent to the warp and weft of weaving that brings so many designers to Albers’ work. Albers’ sketching process alone is a testament to her faithfulness to the grid: she sketched on graph paper from 1970-80, as a republished version of her notebook published by David Zwirner (and a 50 Books | 50 Covers of 2017 recipient) attests. Designer Hannah Waldron, for instance, echoes the “ingeniously combined abstract, geometric grids with whimsical wisps of color, and vague allusions to landscapes” of Albers’ work. Dutch design agency VBAT is effusive about her brilliance, too. Back in 2016, we even saw a significant number of graphic designers ditching the screen for looms.
The overwhelmingly positive reviews for the Tate exhibition have shown that the art world, and hopefully the wider world too, has moved beyond viewing weaving as a feminine pursuit, somehow less significant that mediums such as paint or sculpture. It’s interesting, however, to pick up on certain hints that her gender is still playing a role in perceptions of her work. “Sensuality—bordering on the sexual—and geometric rigor, variety and similarity (pleasures that demand being repeated) infuse the work of a lifetime in Albers’ show,” writes Aidran Searle in his review of the show in the Guardian. It’s hard to imagine that borderline-sexual “sensuality” being commented on in the work of a man.